Save Darfur?

War, slaughter, genocide — and you feel like seeing a movie?

For an issue-oriented doc with activist aims, the line between hope and despair — between placating an outraged audience and calling it to action — is a fine one, indeed. Any indie auteur feels tempted to salute grassroots heroism, his own not least, although the promise of “making a difference” can’t be fulfilled before the doc is over, lest it let us off the hook. At the other extreme, pessimism can work paradoxically to inspire, in part through its implicit flattery. (Only you can prevent forest fires!) But it can also backfire: When Leo DiCaprio goes so far as to predict the extinction of humanity in his admirably bleak climate-change doc The 11th Hour, even the Sierra Club’s star canvasser would be forgiven for thinking, “Well, if acid rain will wash away my eco-print anyhow, why not just hop in the Hummer and party like it’s 1999?”

Tonal modulation is everything in a political doc; the more dire the matter at hand, the more delicate the issue of how to address it. The crisis in Darfur — the slaughter of 400,000 black African citizens by the Arab-led Sudanese government and its Janjaweed militia — compels The Devil Came on Horseback to commence in full-on grab-and-shake mode: literal dark-continent maps, drums beating as an SUV kicks up dust on a village road, near-subliminal glimpses of charred and mutilated bodies, and a digital-strobe effect obscuring the face of Western compassion — young U.S. Marine turned activist Brian Steidle, whom Joaquin Phoenix could impersonate easier than he did Cash. Co-directors Annie Sundberg and Ricki Stern shrewdly use their slick style as bait in the first five minutes before proceeding in more sober and philosophical terms. Ultimately, Devil ponders the optimism/pessimism = apathy/x equation as honestly and studiously as any doc I’ve ever seen. Indeed, as much as Darfur, the film’s chief concern is whether reminding the Western world of its shameful apathy can motivate change more effectively than the usual tactic of celebrating the few and proud exceptions to the rule.

Steidle, whose like-titled book begins with his casually wrenching eyewitness description of an infant girl straining to breathe with a bullet wound in her back, is in a unique position to report bad news — not just the news that half of Darfur is being exterminated, but that no one in a position to stop it has been moved to do so. In 2004, Steidle, then 27, answered an Internet job posting to serve with the African Union as an unarmed military observer, taking photographs while a momentary ceasefire gave way to more ethnic cleansing. The film, which began production after Steidle’s horrific photos appeared in the New York Times deftly reenacts his progression from mild frustration with cold coffee to shock at the discovery of black villagers being chained and burned alive by the Janjaweed, and from faith to profound disbelief. “If [my] photos were released to the public,” Steidle wrote in an early e-mail message to his sister Gretchen (who co-authored the book), “there would be troops here in a matter of days.” In fact, what followed the photos’ publication was a U.S. State Department request for Steidle to stop their circulation. Though Dubya had dared to describe the Darfur crisis with the G-word (genocide), there were evidently other wars on terror to fight, other evildoers to prosecute.

Genocide is shameless:  Brian Steidle and some rebels in The Devil Came on Horseback
Genocide is shameless: Brian Steidle and some rebels in The Devil Came on Horseback

Sundberg and Stern’s camera catches Steidle at what appears to be his lowest point, and, to their great credit, they resist using that material to shape an upbeat third act wherein the weary activist gets his umpteenth wind. “Watching is nothing,” Steidle says of his work with a camera, though he seems to be talking just as much about left-wing documentary spectatorship. “It’s just watching.” The Devil Came on Horseback might have ended there, on a moment that painfully encapsulates the deep despair of both Steidle and the film. But, at the risk of suggesting that someone else, if not ourselves, will surely do the right thing, it concludes with a list of Web site addresses — savedarfur.org, globalgrassroots.org, and threegenerations.org — along with a phone number: 1-800-GENOCIDE.

The what-you-can-do epilogue has become a standard documentary trope, but here, in the context of a film that rigorously questions all methods of progressive agitation, including its own, the text becomes part of the story. Can we trust our fellow documentary devotees to do something useful with this information they’ve been given? More to the point: Can we trust ourselves?

 
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